The Little Gangsters from Hanoi

The Little Gangsters from Hanoi are ready to ride off into the rainy mountains.












Tu Le, Vietnam

Jay Maisel, one of the great living masters of color photography, is known for always carrying a camera no matter where he goes. And he offers students and other photographers some words of wisdom about his habit: “I don’t understand these people who say they want to be photographers and who don’t take their cameras with them. How do they expect to make photographs without their cameras?”

I took Maisel’s advice to heart on this trip and it really paid dividends. Even when going out at night for dinner onto the poorly lit streets of small towns I took my camera. And I was often reminded of some other keys to being a successful photographer: “Being there” and “being prepared.”

On this trip, I have been looking for examples of how Vietnam is being reshaped by its embrace with the West. Nearly 40 years after the war, the changing face of this Southeast Asian nation is often reflected by its young adults, who are crazy about western fashion labels, pop music of all types and acting out as hip and chic in coffee places, posh hotel bars and by racing through the streets on their motorbikes.

In fact, many are making their parents a bit crazy. In times past, young people stayed at home in the evening with their families. But now, young people are eager to assert their independence, make a break with tradition and use their new-found wealth. At their worst, some are raising havoc with excessive drinking and reckless, high-speed driving that is causing accidents and injuries — a practice called “wilding.” But most of this acting out is more subdued, the type of youthful rebellion found in many cultures where young adults establish their own identify and one they hope is altogether different than their parents.

I knew that capturing this in images would be a challenge. And I was surprised, and grateful for seeing it, when my opportunity materialized in this tiny town northwest of Hanoi. Deep in the countryside, miles from the urban center of modern life we met “The Little Gangsters from Hanoi.”

It was raining and we’d taken a break from driving to get an iced Vietnamese coffee. We were sitting in a modest coffee shop with its concrete floor, plastic chairs and tables and open front on the street when this band of merry young men arrived on two motorbikes — two gangsters per bike. They came to get some coffee, smoke and dry out.

Decked out in a variety of fashion labels, they occupied the table next to ours. Their garb and swagger put them right on the stage I wanted. They were doing their best to break with ancient Asian ways and be hip, cool and oh so bad. They were clearly skipping work and school to engage in a bit of marauding through the countryside.

I pointed this out to my assistant and traveling companion, Saigon photographer Khoa Tran, who said, “Yeah, they think they’re a bunch of gangsters.” And thus, we dubbed them “The Little Gangsters from Hanoi.”

I slowly picked up my camera and started shooting. My candid status vanished quickly, as the young men noticed the foreigner with the camera. Just as quickly their facade melted away into giggles, grins and “hallos” for the photographer. And they were enormously generous in allowing me to photograph them hanging out over coffee, tea and smoking strong tobacco from a long wood pipe.

Before everyone left the coffee shop and headed into the rain, Khoa arranged the young men in the street for a group photo with their bikes. There were grins and goodbyes. And then with plastic rain coats flapping in the wind, The Little Gangsters from Hanoi disappeared into the rainy mist in pursuit of Vietnam’s modern future.

The little gangsters don't seem so menacing after all.









The cafe provides shelter from the rain, coffee, smoking and talking with friends.


Rain, rain go away so that the gangsters can ride their bikes away.

The little gangster named Ling.

We call came in out of the rain for this Vietnamese favorite: Iced coffee.

Drip, drip, drip…the anticipation builds for a coffee break.



















































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